Elgin Baylor never won an NBA title with the Los Angeles Lakers but that does not diminish his greatness in my eyes. The reason for that was that his Lakers were, in effect, a two-man team: Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. Still, they made the NBA Final almost every year. The problem with that was that they had to face the Boston Celtics in the final and the Celtics were a 10-man team every year, with nine of those 10 in the Hall of Fame today: Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, John Havlicek, Frank Ramsey, Sam Jones, K. C. Jones and Tom Sanders. Still, the Lakers took them to Game 7 in several years, a total of 8 NBA Finals in all.
One reason they did that was Elgin Baylor. How do I describe the player he was? In fact, I just took a pause to reflect on that. He was a 6’5” power forward who could also play small forward if necessary. That would be small for a power forward today. Perhaps. But he was in a class by himself in the 1960s. He played college basketball at Seattle, taking them to the NCAA Final in 1958, losing the final to Kentucky, the famous ‘Fiddlin’ Five’ of coach Adolph Rupp. Seattle was also a two-man team: Baylor and ‘Sweet’ Charlie Brown from Du Sable High School in Chicago, which took 2nd in the 1954 State Tournament in Illinois.
I don’t think this clip, digitalized and cleaned up, can really render the greatness of Elgin Baylor. No one could guard him. He could dribble like a point guard, with either hand. He had a great one-on-one game, with a perfect understanding of his pivot foot. Then, I don’t know when the term ‘hang time’ was coined but it may have been for Baylor, who was like Charles Barkley or Michael Jordan … in the 1960s. He’s go up and his man would go up with him. Then, he’d stay up while his man came down! The result was a clean shot or a killing pass, as he was a great passer.
Most of all, however, he was the first incredible offensive rebounder I ever saw. I can’t even count the times he’d go up for an offensive rebound with 3-4-5 other players, from both teams. No one would control the rebound and they’d all come down. Then, while the other men were getting themselves together to jump again, he was already up there and making a put-back. So, he didn’t JUMP the second time, he just BOUNCED off the floor. That was when I started reflecting on ‘quick fibres.’ So, his athleticism was off the charts. Add in that he had great physical strength and you have a 6’5” version of LeBron James. Again, no one could guard him.
As a player, he was slightly different from Michael Jordan but he dominated games the way Jordan dominated. Even in those eight NBA Finals where the Lakers lost, you knew they would not have made the playoffs without Baylor and West. So, we’re talking about MVP qualities in those two players. With them, the Lakers were a great team. Without them, they would have been a lower-echelon team. In that, there was a heroic quality about Baylor … and West. There was no way they should have been able to play the Celtics even-up but they did. Could Elgin Baylor play today? Could he ever! You see, he was 60 years ahead of his time in 1961.